BROOKSVILLE — Tuesday afternoon, county commissioners learned that the 2012-13 budget shortfall they thought they had resolved had grown again to $2 million.
Later in the day, they got a 55-page snapshot of the county's Animal Services operation, and the news was not good: The operation is rife with dozens of problems, an audit report concluded.
Solving many of those problems will cost the county more money — money it does not have.
More staffers are needed, for example, or the county may have to reduce the number of pets it keeps at its shelter, meaning hundreds more dogs and cats would have to be euthanized each week.
On Wednesday, county officials and others involved in animal welfare were digesting Tuesday's audit report, completed by the Clerk of the Circuit Court's Office, trying to sort out what options are available to keep the shelter operation from regressing.
County Administrator Len Sossamon said he intended to allow county staffers to thoroughly review the report before meeting with them next week to talk about the next steps and develop a time line for actions.
He noted that much of the report dealt with the lack of procedures at the shelter and the failure to create enough of a paper trail on how animals are accepted, evaluated and cared for.
"The reporting process needs to be beefed up,'' Sossamon said. "We need to have a standard protocol, and we need to follow that protocol.''
Much of that work already is in progress, said Mike Nickerson, the county's public safety director.
In the weeks ahead, Sossamon said, he anticipates a lot of internal staff work, but also expects to engage the community in the conversation. He said he wants to assure the public that "we're not going to let this happen again.''
Commissioner John Druzbick said he took a couple of messages from the audit report.
"To me it seems that some of the glaring things are that staffing is a problem and, No. 2, the volunteers have had no direction, very little direction and no training,'' Druzbick said.
The problem is money.
Not just Animal Services, but other county departments have been warning commissioners for the past few years that, as budgets and the size of the staff have shrunk, problems with providing services have risen, Druzbick said.
In the past four years, Animal Services has had four different directors, a budget reduction of 43.3 percent, a staffing reduction equal to 7 ½ full-time positions, and a merger with Code Enforcement.
"Staff has said that the reductions in the system have really put a strain on the system,'' Druzbick said.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins went a step further.
"This is a logical result of a county that is unwilling to fund its public services through taxation,'' Stabins said. "We're too dumb to elect public officials willing have the guts to raise taxes to provide the services to make the county a livable place.''
Joanne Schoch of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast also noted that people have to be willing to contribute to make the outcome for animals more positive.
"You've got taxpayers screaming 'Don't raise my taxes,' and you're not giving good services,'' Schoch said. "I want to see improvement and changes, no doubt about it. The question is: How are you going to do it? As a community, what are we willing to do to make it happen?"
Schoch said that she was not surprised with the audit findings since many animal shelters struggle with staffing and funding. As for the glaring problems with paperwork and procedures, she said sometimes short-staffed organizations have to set priorities.
For animal-focused operations like her own, she said, "animal care comes before everything,'' and sometimes that means the paperwork suffers.
As for the possibility that the county might have to shrink the size of its shelter, Schoch said that is not an acceptable answer.
Another suggestion by the auditor, and that has been tossed around by the county, is to create a public-private partnership to run the shelter.
County officials have said that idea is still on the table, along with several others, and they have talked to Schoch about the shelter operation. She said she doesn't know what such a partnership might look like, but that she was willing to work with the county.
As the county is finalizing its 2012-13 budget and negotiating additional cuts, several other issues affecting Animal Services staffing remain on the table. They include an earlier offer by the sheriff to take over Animal Services officers and a discussion about moving Code Enforcement under the Building Department, further reducing the size of the Animal Services staff.
County management responds to the auditor's comments on staffing by saying that the county might consider hiring a veterinarian, two vet technicians and someone to coordinate volunteers and act as a liaison with rescue groups. But those positions would almost equal the department's current budget, said Commissioner Dave Russell, who said he thought exploring a public-private partnership had merit.
Commissioner Jim Adkins said he would support using jail trusties to supplement the staff at the shelter, and also wanted to explore using the services of a veterinary student from the University of Florida to provide care for animals at the facility.
Sossamon said that finding a retired veterinarian was another possibility.
The audit was derived from a review of records; interviews with Animal Services staffers, volunteers and others; surveys; and past studies conducted of the operation.
The audit was ordered after an uproar over an 8-month-old dog named Zeus was euthanized just 12 minutes after it was turned over to the shelter in April by a relative of the owner.
Laurie Boynton, the volunteer who photographed Zeus and made the case public, said Wednesday that she was saddened by the audit and its finding that the county did nothing wrong in the Zeus case.
She lamented the fact that a detailed review of the shelter by professionals a year ago found the same kinds of problems with the shelter operation, as well as cases of neglect and cruelty, and yet the county now is saying it will fix the problems.
"There is no value to an internal audit. What you do is you follow up on what experts said a year ago,'' Boynton said. "What a joke, what a sad, sick joke.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434